Helen Chappell: February 2006

Ordinary Miracles
Helen Chappell

     I used to think that miracles were large, explosive things that happened in the Bible, or in Cecil B. DeMille movies at the very least. Light and sound shows were God, as voiced by Sir Lawrence Olivier laid down the message. Seas roiled, angels appeared, the cavalary arrived just in time. People had miracle babies, miraculous cures, miraculous rescues, blinding epiphanies. Lots of drama, lots of strum und drang.
      Not being of a snake handling turn of mind, I felt a certain cynicism about miracles. No one I knew who needed a miracle was getting one, no matter how much they needed it. And believe me, I know people who could really use a big one.
      A few weeks ago, a friend casually mentioned ordinary miracles. She was talking about the day to day processes of making her art, about the imprecision of trying to create something and the eternal struggle between human hand and eye and the innate cussedness of inanimate objects, which never quite seem to do precisely what the artist envisions them doing. Sometimes, the material does exactly what it wants to do, and the result is far beyond what she had planned. “And that’s my idea of an ordinary miracle,” she said.
      Unlike the big bang miracles, the deus a machina events of life changing where all one has to do is be in the right time at the right place with the right deity, ordinary miracles are so mundane, so small, we take them for granted. If we notice them at all.
      My own epiphany on ordinary miracles slid over the transom, as these things are wont to do.
      I was walking down Goldsborough Street, on my way to lunch.
      A brand new SUV the size of a Panzer tank slid into the handicapped parking space in front of the ATM machine. Judging by the way the high maintenance blonde teetered on the stiletto heels of her $1000 boots, flinging her fur coat and her $200 haircut as she bumped into me with a supercilious look, she wasn’t handicapped. It might have been the Botox, but she sure didn’t look happy as she whined into the cell phone grafted to her ear. “But it’s not enough! It’s not enough! I need more!” she announced as she inserted her black American Express card into the machine.
      As I walked away, I wondered just how much was ever going to be enough for her. Someone had obviously been reading too many Candace Bushnell novels and bought into the stereotype.
      So how much is enough? I got to wondering. When does it stop? How much do we really need? How much do I really need?
      If I get Tivo, is that going to make me happier? Can I live without that sweater? Is my life really over if I never make the New York Times Bestseller List?
      A few weeks later, I took a papier mache workshop at the Ward Museum in Salisbury. I was very excited, because it was taught by Mommagirl, a visionary folk artist from the Eastern Shore of Virginia, whose brightly painted papier mache pieces are highly prized by collectors. I’d admired her dancing girls and Biblical scenes for a while, and it was a big deal for me not just to learn from her, but to actually meet an artist whose work I prized.
      There were eight women of all kinds in the class. Mommagirl, a tiny African American woman of indeterminate age, was every bit as special as I’d hoped. Before we commenced to make a mess with Elmer’s, newspaper and paint, she instructed us to take a moment of silence to allow Spirit to come to us and help us create. “Now spirit can be anything you believe, God, Jesus, Buddah, whatever. Just let it flow through you and help you create.”
      As I sat there, eyes closed, trying to cut through the clutter and static that runs through everyone’s mind when they’re trying to meditate, I had a thought.
Ordinary miracles.
      I came home with an empty Elvis suit in papier mache, a whole lot of new friends and the idea of ordinary miracles.
      The world is full of them. And yet we’re so busy asking for the big miracles that we take the small ones for granted.
      Ordinary miracles are the bread and butter of daily life. The small things that make an otherwise uncertain existence bearable.
      We may all be hostages to chance, but we are surrounded by beauty that makes it almost bearable.
      Ordinary things like the changing of the seasons. A sunset. Snowflakes. Birds at the feeder. A beloved pet asleep on your bed.
      The laughter of kids at play. The smell of something good cooking in the kitchen. That first cup of coffee in the morning. Things like that make a difference in your life. But we rarely notice them because they’re so ordinary.
      The crunch of hot garlic bread in your mouth the second before the garlic kicks in. The fact that your car starts most mornings. And if it doesn’t, you have a friend who can give you a jump.
      Just having friends is an ordinary miracle. Having people who like you, who laugh with you and not at you is an ordinary miracle.
      So is enjoying your solitude. The smell of a freshly laundered sheet that’s been dried on a clothesline. A movie you can watch again and again and always find something that you’ve missed before. These are ordinary miracles.
      My ordinary miracles may not be the same as yours. I bet you could make a list of all the small things you treasure about your life and not one of them would match mine. Happiness is a deeply personal thing, born of past experiences and a hope for new things in the future. Just having a future is an ordinary miracle, by the way.
      Sometimes, enough is enough. Stuffing yourself with more material goods will not fill an empty life with meaning or love.
      Mindless consumerism is not happiness if you can’t appreciate what you already have. A fancy new car does not make you a better person. The emptiness we all sometimes feel inside of ourselves can’t be filled with X-Boxes and bling. We can’t control the madness of the world with mean- spiritedness and greed. Finding stillness and peace within ourselves doesn’t cost money. The ordinary miracle comes from within and spreads outward through every act of selflessness.
Life is Hobbesian. It is nasty, brutish and short. Take it from a well crafted cynic. But it’s up to us to seize the beauty and treasure the ordinary miracles, even the corniest ones, to make life more bearable, to help us make sense of it all.
      If you take one minute, sixty seconds, to contemplate the small things that bring you so much pleasure, you’ll feel lighter.
      So turn off the news. Put down the remote. Back away from the TV. Take a walk. Go play board games. Eat a cookie. Appreciate the ordinary miracles that make up this life.